INDIANAPOLIS -- Thousands and thousands of people rent apartments or houses in Central Indiana, and many tenants have a gripe about unresolved maintenance issues.
The Call 6 Investigates office receives more complaints about landlord and apartment related issues than anything else, and so Call 6 Investigates Kara Kenney is working for you to find out what your rights are as a renter.
Felicia Durgan contacted Call 6 Investigates after dealing with water leaks and mold at her Lawrence Landing apartment.
“When it rains, it rains inside the apartment,” said Durgan. “I’ve had water issue after water issue after water issue.”
Durgan’s biggest concern is her baby son, Aidan.
Our job is to protect him and I don’t know what the mold is doing to him,” said Durgan. “He was premature, and I feel they knew not to move me in here.”
Like a lot of frustrated renters, Durgan is not sure how to deal with her landlord and what her rights are.
RENTER RIGHT #1- You have the right to a clean, safe and habitable property
“As a renter, you have a right to have a property that is clean, habitable and safe,” said Beth Cox, an Indianapolis attorney who represents both landlords and tenants.
Cox said landlords are typically required to maintain plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems, and appliances.
“As long as you use the property in a reasonable manner, the landlord is generally required to handle all the maintenance issues,” said Cox.
RENTER RIGHT #2- You have the right to repairs within a reasonable time frame
If you notify your landlord in writing, you have the right to get repairs made in a reasonable time frame.
Indiana code does not designate a particular time frame for maintenance issues, however, it often depends on whether it’s an emergency or not.
“Obviously if it’s winter time and the heat needs to be fixed, that’s going to be a much shorter period of time,” said Cox.
RENTER RIGHT #3- You have the right to a full accounting of your security deposit
If you do move out, give the landlord your new address.
“You have a right to know, after vacating a property, what your landlord has done with your security deposit,” said Cox. “They’re required to provide you an itemized statement within 45 days.”
RENTER RIGHT #4- You have the right to fight back in court
You have the right to file a lawsuit against your landlord. Most landlord tenant disputes end up in small claims courts because of the lower dollar amounts involved. Call 6 Investigates counted at least 80,000 eviction cases statewide since 2012.
"If you are forced to bring a suit against your landlord, there is provision in the code that allows for you to possibly recover those attorneys’ fees,” said Cox. “There’s a lot of attorneys that will take those cases on contingency, to see if they can recover those fees later from a landlord.”
Call 6 Investigates was there in Center Township Small Claims Court as Tanya Dullen filed a complaint against her landlord.
“I just finally got fed up on waiting on him to do something,” said Dullen. “I have over 27 pages of emails asking them to fix the things that were wrong. I have pictures and I have video.”
You should have an attorney, even if it’s a free legal clinic, review your lease before signing it, suggests Cox.
“You can do a lot of preventative work by being informed,” said Cox.
RENTER RIGHT #5- You don’t have the right to withhold rent
If you fail to pay your rent, the apartment complex may call you into court for back rent, damages to the apartment and eviction.
"Withholding rent is something Indiana just doesn’t permit, and it can lead to eviction,” said Cox. “Even if your landlord is not fixing something, unfortunately, withholding rent is not an option. That can hurt you more in the end.”
Felicia Durgan had to report to Lawrence Township Small Claims Court after she stopped paying rent out of sheer frustration.
The Marion County Public Health Department says if a tenant stops paying rent, that can severely limit what the agency can do to help.
“Once the property becomes vacant, it becomes a different ballgame altogether,” said Lara Morgan, team leader for housing and neighborhood for the Marion County Public Health Department. “If they don’t pay their rent and they call us, we can only be involved for so long and generally they’re not going to be allowed to live there.”
RENTER RIGHT #6- You have a right to call the health department
Felicia Durgan called the Marion County Public Health Department, as is her right as a renter.
Inspectors came out and issued an order to the apartment complex, telling them to fix the deteriorated ceilings, a clogged drain, and to eliminate moisture problems with the drywall and insulation.
The order gave the apartment until February 10 to fix the issues.
Call 6 Investigates tried to get answers from the apartment complex, but no one would talk to us.
“You guys have an order from the health department, are you going to fix these issues?” Kara Kenney asked. “We have no comment, sorry,” said a worker at the leasing office.
Last year, the Marion County Public Health Department received more than 7,000 complaints related to housing and trash, and inspectors issued more than 4,000 housing orders in 2015.
MARION COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH DEPARTMENT STATISTICS
Housing complaints (housing only, does not include trash)
• 2014 complaints: 4,138
• 2015 complaints: 4,207
Total complaints (housing and trash) –
• 2014 total complaints: 8,465
• 2015 total complaints: 7,187
Lara Morgan, team leader for housing and neighborhood for the Marion County Public Health Department, said they can cite landlords for almost anything.
"We can cite for carpet, we can cite for flooring, we can cite for plumbing, deteriorated walls, deteriorated ceilings, anything that's falling apart and is in disrepair," said Morgan. “We’re doing the best we can. We can’t control how everyone lives.”
Morgan said many people have the misconception that the health department can fix problems.
“We can’t fix a problem directly, but we can write an order for it, and we can file a case into court,” said Morgan.
The agency also can not cite for bed bugs, yet they do provide education.
RENTER RIGHT #7- You have the right to move
“If the repairs are not being done, and it’s not a habitable property, you can vacate the property,” said Cox. “If you do move out, you are effectively terminating that lease.”
However, it’s still a good idea to check the terms of your lease, including how much notice you must give your landlord before moving out.
“Constructive eviction” occurs when the rental property is uninhabitable and the tenant has to move out.
Cox said a court would likely find in a tenant’s favor if the apartment has weather related damages, water line breaks, or has broken locks and doors.
“Those are going to be of more urgency, where a court would be more likely to rule in a tenant’s favor” said Cox.
As for Felicia Durgan and her baby son, they were able to reach an agreement with the apartment complex and moved out without owing any rent.
The Marion County Public Health Department conducted a follow up visit to Lawrence Landing apartments the week of February 15, and found the violations had been corrected.
Moving is not an option for many renters, which is why knowing your rights can make a big difference.
OTHER TIPS FOR RENTERS:
• Use your rental home in a reasonable manner, which includes not leaving water running constantly and allowing only the proper amount of people to stay there
• Start a paper trail—send emails instead of phone calls to your landlord, and document your apartment before and after using photographs and/or video
• Don’t act without looking at your lease